[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]
If Kingpin and The Big Lebowski (or, heck, even Dreamer – a silly movie starring Tim Matheson as a bowler from 1979 that nobody remembers) portrayed the bowling experience from the bowler’s vantage point (natch, given that this is the way most of us comprehend that lengthy lane with the nine pins we hope to topple down in half-drunken triumph), then Curling dares to see it from the middle-aged folks toiling in bowling alleys. This may be because writer-director Denis Côté was born in New Brunswick. In fact, what you may not realize is that five pin bowling, which is quite popular in much of Canada, isn’t nearly as much of a draw in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. And that is because in some of the French-speaking territories, petite quilles (or duckpin bowling, which is ten pin bowling with fat little bastards replacing the slim pins most of us know in the States; perhaps this is why the obesity epidemic is writ larger south of the 49th parallel) is more the order of the day.
I didn’t intend to write a silly essay about the many variants of bowling, although they certainly excite me. (In fact, my discovery of candlepin bowling upon moving to the East Coast made me both very surprised and very happy.) I am, after all, supposed to tell you about this movie, Curling. What I can say is that Denis Côté isn’t terribly interested in the bowling alley’s culinary offerings, which you’d figure that anyone who speaks French or who enjoys chilli cheese fries (does Côté?) would be keen on investigating. However, as the film’s title suggests, the film itself isn’t about bowling. It also involves a pastime that is insufficiently defined by Wikipedia as “a sport in which players slide stone across a sheet of ice towards a target area.” I don’t wish to come across as overly querulous, but this clinical sentence certainly doesn’t insinuate what makes curling a draw. Having not curled in any meaningful capacity outside of the boudoir, I can safely report that Curling‘s curling moments did fill me with the sense that I had missed something – even if most of the curlers were advanced in years and looked as if they had taken up curling to alleviate the gloomy boredom awaiting them outdoors. Since the Will Farrell comedy Dodgeball is held in high acclaim, I would not be surprised if some crass Hollywood crew appropriated this sport too. After all, like golf, curling did originate in Scotland.
For one unsmiling man with a mustache, Jean-Francois (played by Emmanuel Blidodeau), bowling isn’t so much a joy, as it is a low-paying part-time job in which he sometimes loses bets with his co-workers to clean the bathroom or dress up in preposterous costumes. Jean-Francois’s other gig involves cleaning a motel and, one morning when he discovers a bloody mess in Room 9, he is informed by the owner that his services are no longer required. Of course, it isn’t Jean-Francois’s fault, nor even the fault of the “big Accordion trucker” who stayed the night before who either killed somebody or died bleeding in the wilderness. The owner had planned on closing down the motel anyway. “I don’t have the energy,” says the owner. Well, who can blame the owner when the guests die like this?
Did I mention the fact that some tiger is running loose and that various people are being mauled down in the wintry wilderness? Did I also mention that Jean-Francois is a single dad home-schooling his daughter Julyvonne because it’s so dangerous outside? Jean-Francois takes care of Julyvonne because his partner is locked up in a mental institution. “If you touch a hair on her head,” she shrieks, “I’ll rip your fucking heart out.” Such is the promise of domestic tranquility in this family’s universe, but, in Côté’s defense, I should point out that I grew up in an environment in which such lines were shouted around the dinner table. In fact, the situation here is so bleak that Julyvonne begs her father to play Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” through a crappy stereo so that she can dance in a vague manner as Jean-Francois sits on the couch in a moribund manner.
And you thought some of your nights were pathetic. In seeing these scenes, I wondered if the film was set sometime around 1989. Later in the film, when there was talk of cell phones and video games, I felt a genuine sense of shock that this time capsule of a town in the middle of nowhere could be penetrated.
These cinematic results, depending upon your temperament, are either relentlessly bleak or mostly depressing with occasional bright and quietly hilarious spots. At times, Curling made me feel like I wanted to kill myself. And yet I can recommend this mumblecore opus from Quebec. Because the melancholy often functions in a peculiar comic mode. Any film featuring a man dressed up in a bowling pin costume, hassled by a ten year old kid who wants to wear the top portion and who then reveals rudimentary erudition that eludes Julyvonne, can’t be entirely humorless. And any film featuring a fetching employee who has a new hair dye color for every fresh screen appearance is probably suggesting that iridescence can be located in a bleak landscape if you know how to change your stripes. (In fact, chances are that maintaining a silly moustache may be part of the problem.) Then again, this is also a film in which Julyvonne, precluded from painting the town red, humbly requests that her dad paint the bathroom red. Jean-Francois insists that green would be a better shade. Julyvonne is later briefly abandoned because, in Jean-Francois’s view, this contributes to the possibility of him going insane like his partner.
What I enjoyed so much about Curling is that it doesn’t give up its mysteries. We never quite learn why the mother has gone insane. For all I know, it could be a rite of passage in this village. I mentioned earlier that a large cluster of the local population seems to be getting killed or mauled. It could be the tiger. It could be the truck driver. It could be what some folks call cabin fever. I don’t believe the Quebec community is this violent in real life, although I don’t have any fresh crime statistics at my side. Curling presents enough ambiguities to make you wonder whether its village represents some parallel universe occupying Côté’s inventive mind or some part of Québécoise equipoise that just isn’t talked about. It is the rare film that is both a downer and a winner.